Authors: Patrick Dillon
A common thread ran through many of the stories which the public had sent in about informers. In her confession, Elizabeth Gardiner had testified that ‘one Edward Parker told her, that she should have a guinea for every one convicted, that paid the money, and half a guinea for such as … were sent to Bridewell.’ When Mary Pocock laid her accusation against Thomas Pepper ‘she had gone to the Lord Mayor with Edward Parker, an Excise Officer.’ The Officer’s job ‘was chiefly to testify to the character of those before the justices, many of whom … readily took his word.’ Up in front of the magistrates, the landlady of the White Lion found that ‘her innocence and defence were not worth a straw.
The informer had a
to stand up for his reputation, and the credibility of his testimony.’
Edward Parker didn’t look like the worst villain in Christendom. Two years earlier he had been a low-ranking officer in Candles (3rd Division), covering Wire for an officer on secondment to Hair Powder. He was on £30 a year, and not even his bosses had heard of him. But when the Gin Act came in, the Commissioners of Excise needed extra officers on the streets, and Edward Parker was an obvious candidate. At Michaelmas 1736, he was moved over to ‘be employed on the retailers of spirituous liquors.’
Edward Parker could see there were opportunities in prohibition, but to start with he couldn’t work out how to make them pay. In August 1737 he ran into trouble. He and his partner, Waters, went into the King’s Bench prison one Friday, looking for anyone who would sell them gin. ‘By some stratagem,’ as
Read’s Weekly Journal
reported, ‘[they] got a dram of gin of the poor tapster.’ But they needed details as well, and that was where the sting went wrong. ‘Not knowing [the tapster’s] name, and endeavouring to find it out, they were discovered, upon which the prisoners ducked and pumped them to such a degree, that ’tis feared that one, if not both, will die of the bruises they got there.’
Edward Parker didn’t die. But when he was beaten up again, in November 1737, he started thinking. There was no point risking his own skin going into gin-shops. He was better off paying informers to do it for him. He might not able to pick up the whole £5 reward for himself, but he could still take the lion’s share. The informers would be paid off. It didn’t matter whether their victims had ever sold a dram of gin in their lives. Elizabeth Gardiner later revealed that she got her reward ‘whether she had liquor or not.’ Edward Parker’s role would be to spot targets, arrange the informers, and then use his office to make sure magistrates accepted them as ‘credible witnesses’.
Some of them didn’t. Clifford William Phillips, the Tower Hamlets magistrate who had helped put down the East End riots in summer 1736, was well-regarded by almost everybody. Lord Chancellor Hardwicke was surprised, therefore, to receive a complaint against him in November 1737. It came from a group of Excise Officers led by Edward Parker. They claimed that Clifford William Phillips – who happened to be a distiller – had encouraged gin-sellers to break the Act. He had ‘done his utmost to discourage all endeavours to bring the offenders to justice by abusing and threatening not only the Excise and Peace Officers, but also a gentleman in the Commission of the Peace.’
He had protected a gin-seller called Mary Bryan from prosecution. Most important of all, he had questioned the veracity of one of Parker’s informers. In the subsequent row, Clifford William Phillips denied that he had ever pointed at Edward Parker and said ‘that such scoundrels and rascals … made the Excise stink in every person’s nostrils,’ although later events would prove him right. This time Edward Parker had bitten off more than he could chew – there were any number of people ready to testify to Phillips’ good name. But he had demonstrated exactly how far he was prepared to go.
And it wasn’t long before he found another way to get round the problem of suspicious magistrates. In April 1738, when Westminster magistrates announced their special thrice-weekly sessions to clamp down on gin-selling, they requested that an Excise man should be in regular attendance ‘to enquire … into the characters of the persons who give evidence upon the informations.’
There were no prizes for guessing who got the job.
Edward Parker didn’t mind testifying to the character of any informer; most of them were on his payroll. By then he was running a network which spread all over town. When the gin-sellers were dragged off to Bridewell, and the informer pocketed his reward, ninety per cent of it went to Edward Parker. His role in
Westminster special sessions was a licence to print money. Over the next eight months, 300 men and women were convicted by Westminster magistrates, and every one put £4 in Edward Parker’s pocket.
It couldn’t last – not with rumours swirling round Westminster and his name splashed all over tracts and pamphlets. The end came quickly. On 4 December Edward Parker didn’t turn up for work. Nathaniel Blackerby adjourned the session but two days later there was still no sign of Parker. ‘About the beginning of December,’ Blackerby later reported, ‘the … Justices [were] credibly informed that … Edward Parker, the usual Informer, and Joseph Porter, who … acted as Clerk at the … meetings … had made great and illegal advantages to themselves by these prosecutions.’ They weren’t just pocketing rewards from the informers. What sunk Edward Parker in the end was a different scam. While half of the gin-sellers’ £10 went to the informer, the other half was supposed to be passed on to their parish to pay for poor relief. Edward Parker had been embezzling it. It was when magistrates asked to see accounts that he called in sick.
But he knew the game was up. This time he had pushed his luck too far. On 20 December the magistrates’ new clerk recorded a terse minute that Edward Parker was dead.
Read’s Weekly Journal
filled in the background. By then, ‘there were several bills of indictments found against him … by the Grand Jury for the County of Middlesex, for subornation of perjury. He took the same much to heart … which was the occasion of his death.’ His funeral had to be kept private ‘for fear the mob should tear his corpse to pieces.’ Edward Parker was said to have had more than 1,500 gin-sellers informed against. After the funeral, his executors ‘laid their claim at the Excise Office, for £1,535 as due to the deceased for informations against persons selling of spirituous liquors contrary to law.’
do him any good. He barely left enough even to pay for the funeral.
London Evening Post
had the last word on the career of prohibition’s Godfather. ‘’Tis said he died in a miserable condition,’ it reported, ‘as such rascals generally do.’
By the end of 1738, the attempt to enforce the Gin Act was winding down. Informers had been running out of time even before Edward Parker’s death. When Richard Dyer and Mary Norton, one of the most active informer teams, trapped a Clerkenwell woman on 16 December, the court refused to believe their evidence. As Dyer was leaving the court, the
London Evening Post
described how ‘[he] was taken [on] a warrant from the Lord Mayor, for an assault and suspicion of a robbery, and by him committed to Wood Street compter.’ By the end of December, most of the papers agreed that ‘the business of informing seems … to be pretty much at a stand.’
Informers hadn’t just run out of time. They had run out of cash as well. Asked a few years later for an account of the fines they had collected during prohibition, the Commissioners of Excise reported that they had taken in almost £9,000, but ‘no part of these fines have been paid into the Exchequer, the whole having been expended in … rewards to informers.’ Prohibition ran at a loss. On 21 December 1738, the
reported that over 400 informers were still waiting for their rewards, ‘the Commissioners … having no money in their hands.’
No one was going to risk death for an Excise IOU.
At the peak of the clamp-down Westminster magistrates had convicted fifty gin-sellers a month. In December they convicted eight. There would be no special sessions after January 1739. By July 1739 only one for the sixty-seven commitments to Tothill Field Bridewell would be for gin-selling.
It wasn’t just the magistrates who were tired. The papers were tired of the Gin Act as well. When the clamp-down started they had reported every magistrates’ session in detail, but the reports soon dwindled to regular round-ups. By December their attention had switched elsewhere.
There was plenty else for them to concentrate on. In August that year, twenty-five years of peace finally started to crumble, and from then on the papers could talk of nothing but remobilisation. Gin-drinkers and gin-sellers alike were pressed into the service. Informers were swept up as well. ‘Last Thursday,’ reported a gleeful
London Evening Post
on 5 August, ‘a victualler in St James’s Street, being informed against for selling spirituous liquors, and having paid the penalty, the informer went into a house in the neighbourhood to meet others of the profession to divide the spoil. The victualler by accident met with a press-gang, and telling them that several young fellows had hid themselves in that house for fear of being pressed, the Lieutenant immediately entered the house, and pressed them into his Majesty’s service.’
The enemy was Spain, and the excuse was a spate of attacks on British vessels by Spanish customs boats. There were rumours of outrages. As evidence of what he had suffered, a Captain Jenkins had brought back his severed ear in a jar.
The public were ecstatic about the war.
Read’s Weekly Journal
found it ‘impossible to express the joy which appeared among the generality of people on Thursday, upon the hopes of a war with the Spaniards, to revenge the robberies, murders and insults committed on the British subjects for years past.’
Only Sir Robert Walpole failed to join the general rejoicing. Just two months earlier he had lost his new wife – and long-term mistress – Maria Skerrett, after a miscarriage. The end of peace was yet another blow. ‘It is your war,’ he told Newcastle, ‘and I wish you well of it.’ It wasn’t just that he longed for peace. The war was another sign of the
opposition’s strength. Sir Robert had been pushed into it by the same coalition which had first come together over Excise, and then to attack the Gin Act. Independent Whigs proclaimed themselves ‘patriots’ and combined with the Tories. In October, with the support of Sir John Barnard and Micaiah Perry, 153 merchants from the City of London added their weight with a petition against Spanish privateers. The Prime Minister’s political confidence would never quite recover. The next year, in a torrid Westminster by-election, ministerial candidates would be ousted in favour of the war’s first hero, Admiral Vernon, and the ministry would resort to shutting down the poll. The government candidate for Lord Mayor, Sir George Champion, would be voted down by the Court of Common Hall. Walpole’s power was waning.
For Hardwicke, in spring 1737, it had been beneath the dignity of Parliament to speculate about the motives of rioters. That confidence hadn’t lasted long. Only two years later, the Duke of Newcastle would warn the same Lord Chancellor that ‘if we go on despising what people think and say, we shall not have it long in our power to direct what measures will be taken.’
There was only one consolation for Sir Robert Walpole. The war was a smokescreen behind which the Gin Act could quietly be forgotten. At the end of August Sir Joseph Jekyll had died, aged seventy. In the next session there would be no one left in Parliament to keep the Gin Act alive. Prohibition in England could end not with a bang but a whimper. It would be another five years before it was formally repealed, but long before then any attempt at enforcing it had been quietly dropped. As Thomas De Veil’s biographer delicately put it, ‘it was at last found necessary to soften the severity of [the Gin Act], by becoming relax in the execution of it.’ The ‘boldest experiment … ever made in a free country’ had failed.
* * *
Prohibition would be remembered most of all for its absurdities. It had set out to save society from crime and insubordination, but achieved the very opposite. The Gin Act had turned law-abiding citizens into criminals. Shopkeepers who had never seen themselves as law-breakers had been carted off to Bridewell and whipped. The law had alienated a whole sector of public opinion. Even those honest citizens who had done their best to stay legal ended up walking away in disgust. In March 1738, Amos Wenman, one of the few who actually took out a £50 licence, was convicted by the Excise Office on a technicality. John Ashley, the only other original licence-holder, was caught out the same way. If you could take out a licence and still be convicted, what was the point in obeying the law? In late July, the few legal licence-holders walked away from the Gin Act. They wrote to the Commissioners of Excise, petitioning ‘that they may surrender up their licences, the same being attended with great incumbrances and ill conveniences as not to be surmounted.’
The drink trade had been taken out of the mainstream and handed over to organised crime. ‘The business has been transferred,’ explained the
Short History of the Gin Act
, ‘from those who have legal settlements, pay all taxes, do all offices, to those who have no settlement at all … wretches, who leave no persuasives untried to tempt and prevail upon people into all the abandoned excesses this law was passed to prevent.’ Reformers had thought they could stamp out crime by outlawing Madam Geneva; they had achieved the very opposite.
Then there was the absurdity of the parish money. Half of each fine was supposed to go to the gin-seller’s parish, to pay for poor relief. It was a tidy sum; a year into prohibition, St Anne’s Soho was getting almost fifteen per cent of its income from gin fines. But one of the results of the Gin Act, as one writer pointed out, was to ‘expose … numbers of unhappy
people, who before the selling of spirituous liquors … became a crime, had got a livelihood thereby, to be distressed, beggared, and sent to prison.’ Distressed and beggared, gin-sellers had to turn to the parish for relief. The gin fines simply went round in circles. In summer 1738, parishes even began to short-circuit the system. ‘Some churchwardens,’ magistrates were told, ‘instead of applying … convictions money to the use of the poor of their parish, have returned the same back to the party or parties so convicted on pretence of their being poor.’